‘Fifteen Dogs’ by André Alexis

Fifteen Dogs coverReviewed by André Forget

When the shortlist for the prestigious Scotiabank Giller Prize was announced earlier this year, there was an almost audible sigh of collective pleasure in the Canadian literary community. Not only did the slate of nominees include excellent and ambitious writers—Anakana Schofield for Martin John, Heather O’Neill for Daydreams of Angels (her record-setting second consecutive nomination), Rachel Cusk for Outline, Samuel Archibald for Arvida, and, of course, André Alexis for Fifteen Dogs—it also recognized two of the nation’s small press powerhouses, Windsor-based Biblioasis (Martin John) and Toronto’s Coach House Books (Fifteen Dogs). The judges’ message, intentional or not, was clear: Canadian fiction is about more than sad realism and historical romance.

Based on the calibre of the contenders, I would have been quite happy to see any of these writers end up with the prize. But I must admit that a part of me was extraordinarily pleased to hear that Fifteen Dogs had won. There is something fearless about it, wildly uninhibited and yet tightly controlled; I felt it was a victory not just for Alexis and Coach House, but for all literature that defies realism in favour of imaginative possibility.

If one were simply to read the reviews published in the Canadian press, however, one could not be blamed for thinking the novel a cute but somewhat platitudinous exercise in fantasy. José Teodoro’s review in The Globe and Mail, for example, dedicates most of its energy to puns before ending with boilerplate praise for how the dogs’ struggle “speaks to what it means to be human,” and Safa Jinje’s Toronto Star review concludes with an observation that could apply to probably half of the novels published this year: “Alexis makes clear that the virtues of love — of being in love and loved in return — is at the core of a good life.” While many reviews noted the novel’s philosophical bent, precious few seemed at all interested in talking about it.

Which is a pity, because Fifteen Dogs is, as the title page proclaims, “An Apologue,” or moral fable with animal characters, and like the classical Hellenic material it references and borrows from, Fifteen Dogs is a sophisticated philosophical exercise, one that reminded me in some places of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, in others of Borges’ “The Secret Miracle,” and in still others of Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?”—an experiment which explores everything from problems of consciousness and language to social order and art to the nature of happiness.

The experiment begins as follows: after a night out drinking on King Street in Toronto, the gods Hermes and Apollo grant human intelligence to fifteen dogs in the kennel at the back of the veterinary clinic on Shaw Street as part of a wager. Apollo gambles a year’s servitude that animals “would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they had human intelligence,” a wager Hermes, believing there is something special about humanity’s ability to use symbols and language, accepts—with the caveat that if even one of the creatures dies happy he will have won.

“Human intelligence” means that the dogs are capable of the kind of abstract and imaginative thinking that allows them to escape from their kennels, work as a team, develop speech and poetry, and even philosophize about their place in the world, but it does not change their fundamental dog-ness, and tends to magnify rather than moderate their virtues and vices. For most of them, it is an unmitigated disaster.

As the pages go by and more and more of the dogs come to an unhappy end, Apollo’s cynicism begins to seem justified. The ability to think like humans allows the dogs mastery of the little fiefdom they carve out in High Park, but it also causes great existential uneasiness. While some of the dogs embrace the new possibilities opened up by consciousness and language, becoming curious (about whether or not the sky ends, for example), others yearn for the simplicity of their pre-conscious state, when life was simply a matter of feeding and mating and getting along with one’s master. These dogs believe the only proper thing to do is maintain the old ways of dog-ness and avoid any dangerous innovations.

This is rich analogic territory, and a less interesting writer may have simply set up a dichotomy between violent traditionalism and enlightened curiosity and built the novel around the ensuing tension. But this is a fable, and a fable is not sermon: Alexis follows the dogs’ feuds and escapes and bewilderment with a cool detachment that grants his insights more lucidity and heightens the tragedy. As the pack slowly succumbs to division and paranoia, it is hard not to be struck by the plight of even its most violent members, who seek desperately to hold on to the appearance of a way of being they can no longer truly—that is to say, unconsciously—inhabit. The dogs who are open to the possibilities presented by their newfound consciousness, too, ultimately fall victim to of the bitter reality of their in-betweenness.

When Majnoun, one of the most curious and intelligent members of the pack, is taken in by a pair of loving, sympathetic humans, his greater ability to understand and interact with them leads to a temporary happiness, but because he is still fundamentally a dog (with all the strong feelings of devotion and commitment that this entails), he is unable to come to terms with the loss of his human companions when fate turn cruel. It is surely no accident that the dog best able to understand the world around him has a name that, in Arabic, literally translates to “crazy.” Bereft of any kinship with his own kind and unable to adopt the existential coping mechanisms available to humans, he spends his last days in a melancholic ritual of hopeless loyalty that is one of the novel’s most haunting images. The dogs, like humans, perhaps, are unable to find their place in the natural world now that they are capable of understanding it.

For example, Atticus, a Neapolitan Mastiff who takes leadership of the pack, finds consciousness “intolerable” because “all the old pleasures—sniffing at an anus, burying one’s nose where a friend’s genitals were, mounting those of lower status—could no longer be had without crippling self-consciousness.” Like Adam and Eve after eating the forbidden fruit, Atticus’ self-awareness breeds shame, and his shame drives him to punish those who don’t appear to feel it.

“How are we to live, now that we are strangers to our own kind?” he asks Majnoun early on in the pack’s consciousness. When Majnoun pragmatically suggests that “We have this new way…Why should we not use it?” Atticus grows impatient: “You want to think and keep thinking and then think again. What is the good of so much thinking?”

There is a sense in which this is the key question of the book, and it’s an honest one. The price of being able to think is that one cannot stop thinking—about time, about shame, about one’s position in the pack and in the world, about death. Many of us, I am sure, have looked from time to time at a dog and wondered if they might not, in their blissful lack of awareness, have it easier than us. For in becoming conscious, the dogs have encountered the problem of identity. Aware for the first time of themselves as selves, they have discovered the anxiety that comes from wanting to both be true to those selves and to also have them validated by others: Atticus wants to be able to sniff at another dog’s anus, but he cannot do so without wondering if this compromises his status as leader.

Likewise, near the end of his life the poet-dog Prince is stricken with the anxiety that the verses he has composed will die with him. It is not enough that he himself has taken pleasure in their creation and recitation, for “he needed to be heard in order to share the joy he took in language.” Prince is the dog most comfortable with solitude, but he is still subject to the desire—as old as literature itself—to be outlived by his words.

But the novel also has playful moments—Atticus, for example, arrives at belief in the existence of God through a process of reasoning that bears striking similarity to Anselm of Canterbury’s ontological argument. Plagued by his belief that dogs capable of thought are no longer true dogs, Atticus becomes obsessed with the idea of what a pure dog might be, a dog with all the best qualities of dog-ness and none of the flaws. Convinced that “An ‘ideal’ dog that did not exist could not be truly ideal,” Atticus secretly raises a shrine to this god/dog and starts offering obeisance to it. Of course, in Alexis’ world, where the gods take an interest in mortal affairs, the dog’s faithful devotion attracts the attention of Zeus, who rewards his worship with a wish that will have serious consequences.

Atticus’ encounter with Zeus offers one of the novel’s greatest pleasures: watching Alexis commit to his conceits and follow them through to their gloriously thoughtful conclusions. Having invoked Hermes and Apollo in the novel’s first pages, Alexis doesn’t simply bracket them out and continue with the narrative, as if they were a helpful plot device for setting up his little experiment that could be shuffled offstage once they’d played their part. The notoriously fickle Olympians cannot keep their hands out of the petri dish, changing the terms of the wager, arguing about what really counts as “happiness,” protecting their favourites, and interfering until the very end.

Alexis has written a fable, though, and fables always have morals. Refreshingly, at a time when writing in this country tends either toward a kind of nihilistic ambiguity (in which no moral is posited because morality itself is seen to be suspect) or deeply personal explorations of pain and trauma (in which the moral is obvious but not really the point), he doesn’t shy away from this imperative. Fifteen Dogs is a book possessed of both intelligence and deep feeling, and this surely is a rare thing; but it is also a book that makes claims about the purpose of art and the curious nature of human existence, and that, perhaps, is the rarest thing about it.

Coach House | 160 pages | $17.95 | paper | ISBN# 978-1552453056

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